The long fight to ban toxic flame retardants

How Big Tobacco is linked to household products laced with harmful chemicals

Molly Rauch and kids

Molly Rauch, right, is pushing for toxic chemical reform.

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After unzipping one of her couch cushions, Molly Rauch picked up a pair of scissors and cut out a lipstick-size tube of foam.

It pained her to cut into her new comfy-yet-stylish couch but she had just learned about a new research effort inviting people to send in samples of their furniture to test for unlabeled hazardous chemicals.

“I work in public health, and I’m a mom,” said Rauch, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I had to know.” She wrapped the foam sample in foil, and mailed it to Duke University scientists.

The verdict: Her couch was laced with chlorinated tris, a toxic flame retardant considered a probable carcinogen.

Also known as TDCPP, it was the subject of controversy in the 1970s when it was used in children’s pajamas—a use that ended when a similar chemical was linked to cancer and banned in clothing. But now it’s resurfaced as a flame retardant in furniture foam.

“It really upset me to learn my kids were sitting on this couch, full of a suspected carcinogen,” Rauch said.

EDF’s goal to reform toxics law

That was two years ago. Rauch, who is a public health policy and outreach manager for the EDF partner organization Moms Clean Air Force, has continued to work for toxic chemical reform.

She is among the many advocates campaigning to protect families from the ubiquitous presence of thousands of unregulated and potentially toxic chemicals in household products, including flame retardants. It's an issue EDF has been working on for decades.

Our goal: To see that new legislation is enacted that significantly improves the nation’s woefully outdated toxic chemicals law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This law allows known hazards, such as toxic flame retardants, to go unregulated.

A long, hard fight for reform

TSCA reform has been a long fight, as industry groups have a strong financial stake in keeping chemicals in active production—even in the face of mounting scientific evidence showing how these chemicals affect our health.

We have science on our side, but given the push back, we must remain tenacious.

Richard Denison Richard Denison EDF Lead Senior Scientist

Lobbying from these groups is the chief reason toxic flame retardants and other known hazards like formaldehyde and BPA remain so prevalent, and why a "BPA-free" label won't protect you.

We first took on toxic chemicals in 1997, issuing a report on the lack of evidence of safety for even the most widely used chemicals. Ever since, we’ve been prodding both Congress and EPA for stronger protections.

Reports question whether toxic flame retardants are even effective at their intended purpose of preventing fires.

"The research is making clear that this is a class of chemicals we need to be concerned about and examine closely," said Jennifer McPartland, EDF Health Scientist.

A cheap means to an end

With such strong scientific evidence showing their toxic effects, why are flame retardants still used? Look no further than Big Tobacco.

In the 1970s, cigarettes were a common cause of house fires, and California policymakers requested fire-safe cigarettes to lower the horrible injuries and deaths they caused. But, doing what they do best, tobacco industry front groups successfully deflected requests for fire-safe cigarettes by waging a war against the foam used in upholstered furniture, claiming its flammability was the real culprit.

Once some chemical companies realized the profit possibilities in flame retardant chemicals, business boomed. 

“Thanks largely to an effective industry lobbying effort in California, toxic flame retardant chemicals wereand still arepoured into furniture foam throughout the country,” says Sarah Vogel, Health Program Director.

States and companies take action

In January 2014, California changed its flammability standard. While the new requirement doesn’t ban the use of fire retardant chemicals, it does allow manufacturers to use alternate ways of fireproofing, such as using natural, fire-resistant liners like wool.

Because of the influence of California laws on the rest of the nation, manufacturers everywhere may begin to phase them out. About 15 other states also are taking actions against flame retardants or other known hazardous chemicals, according to the Safer States coalition.

Some companies are taking matters into their own hands by adopting policies that bar chemical flame retardants in furniture.

Unquestionable need for new law 

These are positive trends, but they can’t take the place of strong federal regulatory standards.

Until this happens, parents like Molly Rauch will continue to grapple with the knowledge that toxic or untested chemicals are everywhere, and must sort through worrisome advice like “wash hands frequently.” 

“Every time someone tells me that I am personally responsible for cleaning up a lucrative industry’s mess that has gotten into my home and threatens my children, the more it sounds like nails on a chalkboard,” she says.

What can you do?

The chemical industry lobby will do all it can to keep their chemicals on the market. But momentum for change is growing.

Your support can help us boost our pressure on politicians and corporate leaders to stop using toxic chemicals like flame retardants.

Donate to help us fight for safer chemicals

The problem

Due to a badly outdated chemicals law, toxic chemicals are in widespread use, for example in certain flame retardants.

The solution

Fix the core problem of insufficient regulation, while also pressing and providing incentives for companies to replace toxic chemicals with safe alternatives.

Signs of progress

  • Policy: Members from both parties in Congress are finally working to update the Toxic Substances Control Act. Much work remains to ensure that we have strong federal reform.

  • Supply chain: The world's largest retailer, Walmart, has asked its vast list of suppliers to phase out a prioritized set of chemicals from certain household products.